Homeowners Let Former Neuroscientist Mom Pick Their Excess Fruit for Modern Gingham Preserves

This article is brought to you in partnership with The Horseshoe Market.

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OWNER
Kathy Lee, 42

BUSINESS
Modern Gingham Preserves, a company that produces small-batch jams from organic, local fruit, much of which Kathy locates and picks herself in the Denver area.

LAUNCHED IN
2012

FULL TIME?
Yes. She also has part-time, seasonal employees to help with some of the more laborious tasks, “like pitting 100 pounds of cherries.”

FUNDING
Self-funded.

BEFORE BEING AN OWNER, SHE:
Earned a Ph.D in neuroscience from Northwestern University. She worked in that field as a postdoctoral fellow and then changed careers to work in technology transfer at Northwestern and, later, Canada’s McGill University. She took a break from work to have children, and her family relocated to Denver.

HOW IT ALL STARTED
When Kathy met her future in-laws for the first time, she was taken with a shelf of homemade preserves they had in their basement pantry. “I thought it was the cutest thing I’d ever seen in my life,” she said.

Throughout her neuroscience and technology transfer jobs, she enjoyed going to farmer’s markets on the weekends and taught herself to pickle and preserve fruits and vegetables for her family, but she never thought it would turn into a career.

Her family moved to Denver when she was pregnant with her second child, and he wasn’t born until two weeks past his summer due date.

“I was walking around the neighborhood, doing jumping jacks, whatever I could to try and get him out,” she said, “and that’s when I started seeing all the fruit trees. You could see all this fruit falling, and no one was picking it. It was all going to waste. I was obsessed with how much was wasted.”

It was a passing thought. Her son finally came, but she had a frightening medical experience at his birth, and it motivated her to go back to school to become a labor and delivery nurse. Still, she kept noticing the unpicked fruit trees she passed on campus.

The school’s registration deadline came for her final prerequisite class, but instead of registering, Kathy found herself on the Colorado Secretary of State’s website, registering a jam-making business.

HOW SHE DID — AND DIDN’T — SPEND HER MONEY
Colorado law required Kathy to prepare her jam in a professional kitchen if she wanted to wholesale to stores, so she rented kitchen space from the very beginning. But one of her biggest expenses the first year was jam jars. She’s since learned that she can save 30 percent by buying full pallets of jars, but at the time, she says, “I just didn’t understand economies of scale.” Even if she had, she admits, “I didn’t have the storage space for all of that then.”

One big-ticket item she briefly considered buying but ultimately didn’t was an automatic jar filler. In fact, she still fills all 13,000 of her jars by hand each year. It’s a lot of work, but she says her quantity is considered tiny for small-batch jam makers.

Kathy also gets as much produce as possible from local property owners who can’t use all the fruit on their trees. She finds and picks the fruit herself, calling it “urban foraging.”

“I am the worst person to be behind [in traffic] in the summer,” she said, “because I can see fruit from the corner of my eye.” She’s been known to demand people she’s driving with make u-turns when she spots remarkable fruit.

Kathy leaves notes for homeowners on her official Modern Gingham stationery, asking them to contact her if they’d be willing to let her pick and preserve some of their excess fruit. In exchange, she gives them some of the jam. More than half the people she contacts agree, she says, especially people with crab apples and rhubarb. Some of the hardest fruit to get: apricots, sweet cherries and quince.

MOMENT SHE FELT LIKE IT WAS REAL
Modern Gingham’s public debut was a launch party at a rented historic home on her husband’s birthday. She served her blueberry balsamic preserves with smoked salmon and cream cheese on crackers and offered jars for sale to guests, many of whom she didn’t know well. She sold several dozen jars, and remembers thinking, “Oh my god, people will buy this! This will work!”

SOMETHING SHE’S STRUGGLED WITH
Keeping my eyes on my own plate,” Kathy said, adding how difficult it is not to compare Modern Gingham to other similar businesses she follows on social media “because everything looks effortless on social media.”

She added that she’s made a conscious decision not to sell in the big chain stores, like Whole Foods, but sometimes she compares business to others who do.

“I have to constantly remind myself I have my reasons, and I’m good with them, and I’m doing well,” she said. “And what I always tell people is there’s no terminal decisions. You can make a mistake. There are very few bad decisions you can make that will effectively end your business if you want to keep going.”

HOW SELLING AT FAIRS LIKE HORSESHOE MARKET HAS IMPACTED HER BUSINESS
Markets were among the first ways Kathy started building a following for Modern Gingham, and she says she loves interacting with customers there, especially the home canners who remind her of how she started. It’s also a chance for her get her boys, ages 7 and 10, involved in her work. At the most recent Horseshoe Market, they helped her man the booth wearing matching gingham shirts and offering shoppers their enthusiastic opinions on which jams to sample and buy.

THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE BETWEEN OWNING AND WORKING FOR SOMEONE ELSE
“I’m the worst boss I’ve ever had,” Kathy says. “I never let myself off the hook… I’m project manager, social media manager, marketing manager, chief financial officer, customer service, production manager, I’m in charge of custodial… It’s on me.”

She now makes herself turn off her phone and stop responding to emails after 7 pm. “I realized there’s no such thing as a jam emergency,” she said.

BEST ADVICE TO BUSINESS OWNERS JUST STARTING OUT
“Do it or don’t,” she says with a smile. “There’s no advice you can give that will inhibit someone who’s determined to start… It will be harder than you think it is, and the negative stuff lasts longer in your head than the positive stuff. If you make a profit, that money will likely go back into the business, so it’s financially strapping… There’s a million reasons not to do it, but if you want to do it, you need to do it.”

RELATED: Kathy is one of several terrific small business owners we met through The Horseshoe Market. Check out more of these Real Owners’ stories in our special series.